Summary from Goodreads:
Discover a feminist pop history that looks beyond the Ton and Jane Austen to highlight the Regency women who succeeded on their own terms and were largely lost to history — until now.
Regency England is a world immortalized by Jane Austen and Lord Byron in their beloved novels and poems. The popular image of the Regency continues to be mythologized by the hundreds of romance novels set in the period, which focus almost exclusively on wealthy, white, Christian members of the upper classes. But there are hundreds of fascinating women who don’t fit history books limited perception of what was historically accurate for early 19th century England. Women like Dido Elizabeth Belle, whose mother was a slave but was raised by her white father’s family in England, Caroline Herschel, who acted as her brother’s assistant as he hunted the heavens for comets, and ended up discovering eight on her own, Anne Lister, who lived on her own terms with her common-law wife at Shibden Hall, and Judith Montefiore, a Jewish woman who wrote the first English language Kosher cookbook.
As one of the owners of the successful romance-only bookstore The Ripped Bodice, Bea Koch has had a front row seat to controversies surrounding what is accepted as “historically accurate” for the wildly popular Regency period. Following in the popular footsteps of books like Ann Shen’s Bad Girls Throughout History, Koch takes the Regency, one of the most loved and idealized historical time periods and a huge inspiration for American pop culture, and reveals the independent-minded, standard-breaking real historical women who lived life on their terms. She also examines broader questions of culture in chapters that focus on the LGBTQ and Jewish communities, the lives of women of color in the Regency, and women who broke barriers in fields like astronomy and paleontology. In Mad and Bad, we look beyond popular perception of the Regency into the even more vibrant, diverse, and fascinating historical truth.
Mad & Bad is a fun overview of women bucking accepted norms during the Regency and surrounding eras. Now, I have a pretty strong background in feminist history from this time period, so this book doesn’t dig deep enough for me. I’m also a Regency nerd. I know who the Patronesses of Almack’s are and what their foibles were (I even have a WIP where they appear – don’t get excited, it’s still only four chapters long), Shelley DeWees’s Not Just Jane covers the non-Jane Austen writers of this period in depth, I’m a female scientist so Caroline Hershel, Mary Somerville, and Mary Anning are not new to me, I’ve read Anne Lister’s biography by Anne Choma, and Sarah Siddons and her follow actresses thread their way through theatre books I’ve read. So for me, much of this book is just a review.
But if you are less well-versed in this period of history, particularly women’s history, this book is a great entry to the period. I could really feel where this book pushed back hard against the people who complain about “revisionist” or “politically correct” historical romance novels that include women of color, queer women and nonbinary people, and working women – and if you are one of the people whining about “political correctness” you should probably pipe down and read Mad & Bad. The point here is that these people have always existed and were gradually erased as historical romance codified itself into an exclusionary world of cis-het, gender-conforming white women in ballrooms (I love me a Georgette Heyer romance, but she definitely has some issues). Koch’s writing is fun and poppy and quippy and it reads very well. It would also make a great book for a teen interested in history.
The one thing I would definitely change is to pull Princess Caraboo out of the chapter about women of color as a major figure. She is interesting, particularly in the aristocracy’s response to a “foreign” princess, but doesn’t fit very well into a chapter about women of color who didn’t have the privilege of passing as white. Put another woman of color in her place – because there are only two Black women profiled in the chapter, Dido Elizabeth Belle and Mary Seacole, then Caraboo – and maybe footnote Caraboo at the end of the chapter about the Ton.
Mad & Bad is out today, September 1!
Dear FTC: I read a digital galley of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss.